A Doctor Transforms Her Dream of a Sabbatical Abroad into Reality

I wanted to go on sabbatical with my kids even before I had kids – even before I met my husband.

“How could you want to do something with us before we were even born?” My kids were so confused.

I’m board-certified in anesthesiology and hospice and palliative medicine, and I live in a small ski town in Northwest Colorado. I’m a partner in my anesthesiology group, started the palliative care clinic in our town, and hold several administrative roles. I’ve always wanted to share my love of adventure and travel with my family, and I’m so excited to make a sabbatical abroad a reality!

Travel Bug

I didn’t start traveling until I was in college, when I studied abroad in Cuba for a month and Spain for a semester. I traveled throughout Europe, and then later to Guatemala multiple times. I’ve hiked to Everest Base Camp, and have taken my kids to Spain, Cuba, Japan, and China. We’ve also done a lot of road-tripping as a family, especially when the kids were younger. We consider ourselves frugal to mid-range travelers, and don’t really care about what our hotel looks like as long as it’s safe and clean. 

Traveling in my early twenties showed me how many ways there are to live in the world, and how easy it is to get boxed into thinking there’s only one way. I also learned what a gift it is to be able to speak another language, and how learning how an idea is expressed in a different language can change the way you think. I’ve always wanted my kids to have that understanding.

Dreaming of a Sabbatical Abroad

My dream for sabbatical is more a set of values or anchors to show the kids how other people in the world live, spend time together, and have the kids learn another language. 

Within this dream, I was flexible. Even when I was in academics and thought I’d stay there forever, I knew I’d want to take a sabbatical, and would have been happy spending several months doing research if that’s what made it happen. The concept was more important than the specifics. And that ended up being the most crucial part of my whole plan: not letting the details get in the way. 

We were flexible about:

  • Length of sabbatical
  • Dates of sabbatical
  • Location of sabbatical
  • Working during sabbatical

Planning for Sabbatical

I started planning several years ago when I told my anesthesiology partners I wanted to take a sabbatical. I was looking for points of resistance or concerns so I could address them. They generally said that as long as their call and income weren’t affected, they were OK with the concept. 

Next, I got to work finding a locums physician to replace me at work.  It was daunting to find someone who wants to work for a prolonged period and who will get along with staff and my partners. A couple years ago I started emailing people I knew, letting them know about my plan to take a sabbatical and asking if they would be interested in covering during that time, and if not if they would let other interested people know. Ultimately nothing came of that approach, but it was still worth a try. I also let the locums doctors know of my plan to take a sabbatical, and kept in touch with one in particular who seemed interested. That’s who will replace me during my time away. She is a great fit because she knows the hospital, the staff, and my partners are comfortable with her. 

I also have multiple administrative responsibilities including being the OR Medical Director, the Perioperative Service Line Chair, and a member of the Medical Executive Committee. These leadership roles seemed like a major impediment to my sabbatical and I needed to find a replacement for each of my administrative roles. I recruited my own replacements and by framing it as a temporary situation that the physician taking over my administrative role can continue or not (by mutual agreement) also helped make it more attractive. 

My fellow partners in my anesthesiology group, the surgeons, the nurses, and the administrators  I work with regularly were extremely supportive of my decision to take a sabbatical. It helped that I recruited replacements for both my clinical and administrative roles that they felt comfortable working with.

Bringing Our Kids

My kids initially were not excited for this sabbatical. They’re worried they’ll miss their friends, their life in our small town, and the outdoor activities they love like skiing, mountain biking, swimming, hiking, and camping. They’ve mostly come around now, but it’s more of a general resignation.

Our kids are good travelers since we’ve done so much previous traveling, so my main concern is making it a positive experience for them. My main concerns about kids traveling are: 

  1. Diarrhea
  2. Diarrhea
  3. Diarrhea
  4. Diarrhea
  5. The huge amount of stuff we have to bring

Really, no one wants to deal with four kids with diarrhea. 

Their language learning is one of our core anchors, so we are investing time and money into getting them private lessons in the Galapagos ($6.25/hr/kid) and sending them to a private school in Spain ($250/kid/month). Our kids have been doing one Duolingo lesson a day for the past year, and they’ve also done individual tutoring for the past few years with italki.com, which is a matching service for language tutors, similar to Care.com for childcare. There are language tutors from all over the world, many of them certified teachers. We’ve found some amazing Spanish and Mandarin tutors on the site, though I would definitely recommend interviewing several to ensure their personalities and teaching approach are a good fit. At least for our kids, six years old was when they were able to really start doing online lessons.

Choosing Our Destination

We started planning during the tail end of COVID-19 pandemic and weren’t sure what countries would be open by the time we actually left, or if there would be another world-wide shutdown by then. I felt a pull toward Spain since I studied abroad there and have traveled there multiple times, plus we thought it would be nice to travel in Europe on weekends.Then we realized that we would only be able to stay for 90 out of 180 days (long story). Our plans for traveling around Europe for the month before the kids’ school started were suddenly derailed.  We considered going to Southeast Asia for a while before ultimately deciding to put them in language school before they started in Spain.

We narrowed our focus to Central/South America. I love the Colombian Spanish accent, so we decided to go there. Yes, it was really that arbitrary.  We also thought we might do a week in the Galapagos which is my husband’s number one travel bucket list trip. When we realized that the accommodations and language lessons in the Galapagos were actually cheaper than those in Colombia, we decided to change our plans to stay a week in Colombia and 3.5 weeks in the Galapagos. We will then fly to Lisbon for a few days and then on to the small town in Spain where the kids will go to school. We’ll have most of the month of December to travel, still to be determined but we’re thinking Egypt.

Starting Our Sabbatical Abroad

I’m amazed the sabbatical worked out and am thrilled to share this adventure with my husband and kids. The details might not be exactly what I had anticipated, but the big picture is exactly the same as my pre-kid sabbatical vision. We leave for our sabbatical in late summer, and our renters arrive the following week.

In the process of planning the sabbatical, many people told me “You know, I always wanted to do that [sabbatical], but I never quite made it happen”.  This was the impetus for starting my blog to help people figure out how to break down some of those perceived barriers to taking a sabbatical. I plan to blog throughout our travels at Physician Sabbatical if you’d like to follow along! And if you’re planning a sabbatical or have already gone, I’d love to hear from you.

Also, I’d love to connect with anyone who’s living in any of the places we’ll be visiting. Would be great to meet up with fellow travelers, and I’m sure my kids would love some variety in playmates!

Dr. Sarah Gebauer is an anesthesiologist, mother of four, and helps other physicians realize their sabbatical dreams at Physician Sabbatical and through the Physician Sabbatical Facebook Group.  

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